Picking citrus, like riding horses, is more difficult than it appears.
I trace my passion for the orange grove to a northern childhood of Tang and frozen concentrate, tract houses where trees were too young to stand without green tape and crutches. Once a year, when the electric heaters dried our skin and ticked like pressure cookers in the rooms, the cold, sweet oranges would arrive by parcel post. They came around Christmas, when my Phoenix grandparents would send a white cardboard box of Valencias to Utah. For this annual occasion, we owned an electric juicer.
When we came to Fallbrook two years ago, we built our house on a hill above an acre of orange trees.
But my husband, Tom, was born in Orange County, California, in 1947, when oranges were as common as sun. In his black-and-white childhood photographs, citrus leaves are dark and eyeshaped, like leaves in a fable.
His grandfather and father farmed ten acres of oranges where the Guadalajara tire shop and Les Jardins apartments now stand.
So when we came to Fallbrook two years ago, we built our house on a hill above an acre of orange trees. They were planted in the 1960s by a man named Mr. Barr who, like us, was not a farmer. The leaves are green and eyeshaped, and beyond them to the north and south other hills are scored with avocado, lemon, lime, and orange groves, the distant rows curving in precise, parallel lines. The groves look immortal from here, like the groves of Orange County in old aerial photographs, row upon row, mile after mile.
By 3:00 p.m. every picking day, he and a hired man have scrubbed the oranges with Ivory Liquid in an outdoor sink, dried them with towels and sunlight, sized them, counted them, and packed them.
But in Brazil, where 85 percent of the world’s Valencia naranja are grown, they have a mystical saying, “Oranges are gold in the morning, silver in the afternoon, and deadly in the evening.” After a year of farming oranges in Fallbrook, I fear it is getting on toward evening here.
In winter the mornings are clear, like ice water, and the air smells like wood smoke, cold dirt, and oranges. Some days it’s 80 degrees in the sunshine by two o’clock, but the sun hits only the highest branches, the ones that face the sky. This is because Mr. Barr planted his trees 12-on-center, or 12 feet apart, which we’re told is too close for citrus. They should be 20-on-center so sunlight falls around each tree. It’s likely that Mr. Barr meant to harvest twice as much fruit for a few years, then take out every other tree and flood the grove with sun.
He lifts a clump of leaves to show us the black soot that clings to our leaves and fruit like coal dust on Victorian buildings. “That’s the whitefly."
But no one ever removed the extra trees. Instead of spreading out to form hoop skirts of leaves, the limbs grew skyward like giraffes. Ordinary citrus trees are aloof from each other, never touching; but these arch together into bowers 20 feet above my head. The grove is beautiful, as dark as a cathedral. Slim pillars of copper light appear at dawn and dusk, illuminating gnats, dust, and dry leaves.
In October a packing house estimator stared up at the distant, shade-stunted fruit and told us, “You need to take out every other tree.” Another said to top them so the fruit would be easier to pick, and I pictured a scythe cutting the grove flat as a table. All the grove men explained that Valencias are a poor crop in San Diego County now, hardly worth the cost of water, which is high and rising. Millions of Valencias are grown in the Imperial Valley, Arizona, and the Central Valley, so it would be better, perhaps, to cut ours down.
But this year the Valencias are true to their Spanish name, la naranja tarde, the late orange that ripens in summer but can cling to a tree until Christmas or the new year, the rind growing blacker in the dusty shade. Tom has been calling the pickers since September, and they always say, “It’ll be a few weeks, we’ll call you, the price is down.” A picker in Indio said the price was so low we’d have to pay to have them picked, so ten days from Christmas the oranges dangle outside the kitchen window, a dozen to a limb.
While we wait for the price to go up, Tom says we could remove half the trees and plant oak seedlings in the empty spots. We could wait for them to grow a little, then cut the rest of the oranges down. Oaks only need water at the start, then they cost nothing, and it’s true that an ancient grove of oaks is dark and beautiful. All you need is 100 years.
While we wait for the price to go up, we have dust, shade, light, and oranges. Move past the trunks at four o’clock and the pillars of sun split into long spokes. The trunks are muscular, like horses, and the crows rise up in threes and flap south to the silver aloe field, the green barn, a thin line of palms, the pale lavender hills of Escondido.
We can’t cut them down this winter, I think. Not this year.
JANUARY 5, I995
One of the orange trees is cracked and oozing like a burned animal. The other trees have smooth bark that wrinkles as skin folds inside an elbow or a knee. When wet, citrus bark has a black, glittery-green iridescence; when dry, the hollows are furred with light-green velvet.
But psorosis, also called California scaly bark, starts in the leaves. “Scales remain attached at the periphery of the lesion and curl outward in a pagoda-roof fashion,” L.C. Knorr says in an alphabetical compendium of citrus plagues; but I can’t tell pagoda lesions from concave gum lesions, which should be painted with DN-75. Rio Grande gummosis, a third sticky affliction, requires a wound dressing of DeKaGo.
Like a hypochondriac with a new mole, I read on to the description of “slow decline,” in which “leaves are distinctly smaller, tops thinner, size and yield of fruit diminished. In extreme cases, trees do not die but are useless.”
Our fruit is rather small. Some of the tops look a little thin. The estimators have deplored our yield.
Perhaps our trees are in slow decline, host to the nematode that feeds on the roots of grapes, lilacs, persimmons, olives, climbing hempweed, and oranges. In magnified photographs, nematodes are dark and serpentine, growing like tapeworms in a 4mm slice of rootlet.
Knorr says the citrus-root nematode has been found to persist in California soil nine years after the removal of infected trees, and the female nematode Radolphus similis can ride on rain water to a neighbor’s grove or travel there in the darkness of a gopher’s mouth. I must dig up roots, get a microscope, look for the swollen posterior of Radolphus similis, and then, if I find her, fumigate all the soil.
But if I find a plague, how will I justify saving the trees? How will we pay for fumigation?
In the sunlight, I persuade myself the cancerous mole is just a freckle. It’s noon, and healthy leaves split the sun into a blinding radius when I stare between the branches. The oranges are bright orange and unpickable because the price for Valencias is still down.
FEBUARY 3, 1995
The oranges have been picked by six old men and a windstorm. When no commercial buyer would pick, I called Meals on Wheels, who sent six white-haired men in flannel shirts, overalls, and baseball caps. Before they climbed to immense heights, they assured us that Meals on Wheels has accident insurance. They locked their ladders to the trees with chains when they left at noon, and they returned every Monday and Wednesday until they had picked 26 boxes to give away at the senior center.
The rest of the oranges stayed where they were. “Too high,” they said.
Then the storms began. When you live in a new town, seasons intensify; neighbors are forever saying it is the hottest summer, the coldest winter, the weakest spring they’ve ever had. “We never have wind like this,” our neighbors said in January. The oranges flew down like hail in the grove, and the masses of fallen oranges were biblical in number, as endless as sand or stars.
Now it’s February and hot as summer. The rain that blackened the firewood and rotted the fallen oranges to puffy lumps of verdigris has evaporated, and the dirt is fired clay. Despite the heat, the new grass on the hills seems to live in its own atmosphere, reflecting everything like a lake at noon. Poinsettias have been blooming for almost a month now, and they stand high above the grass, leafless, just red points on spindles so thin that they, too, seem apart from everything, even the air. Below them banks of purple ice plant shimmer like spilled aluminum.
But in the fermenting grove, the fallen oranges that didn’t rot in the cold rain will now turn leathery, the yellow rind darkening under a brown, spreading bruise. Every few minutes another one drops, crashing through the leaves and then thumping down. The new, unripe oranges don’t fall. They’re hard and clean in the light, still green at the stem and smooth enough to reflect the sun, and I have an order for two cases from Mahmoud Hassan.
Mahmoud’s Lebanese restaurant lies on the fringe of a private college where I do research once a week. One afternoon while paying for fresh lemonade and hummus, I told him we grew oranges, lemons, and avocados in Fallbrook.
“Oh, Fallbrook,” he said. “Why don’t you bring me two cases of oranges, a case of lemons, and a dozen avocados?”
That’s how it started.
Picking citrus, like riding horses, is more difficult than it appears. To stand on the ground and snip the low fruit is picturesque. To stand on a bouncing ladder ten feet up is harrowing.
Unlike oranges, lemon branches have thorns up to an inch in length (similar to those piercing the scalp in medieval portraits of Christ). Lemon trees can also produce the most spectacular grotesques: lemons ballooning into gourds, lemons with three fingers, hare-lipped lemons, Siamese twins. Oranges are less barbarous and less genetically bizarre but also, in our case, decimated. It is possible to spot a promising limb, climb the ladder, shake a spider off your hand, scratch your scalp, g and find you’re in reach of three oranges, two of them small,
The washing, at least, is sublime: tin bucket on a slope of n' bright February grass, cold water from a garden hose, a brush, white towels, sunlight, a pile of oranges, a pile of lemons. But to spray, scrub, and towel 200 lemons and oranges, then line them up on a slotted bench and count them by hand into boxes is to see, with Tolstoyan clarity, why old agricultural economies g required serfs and slaves. Always taking pity on me as the sun set, Tom lugged the boxes into his mother’s house to be weighed — on the foldout scale.
Sunkist can sell a box of 56 perfect oranges (all exactly the same size, all perfectly shaped, all waxed for preservation) for $8. I didn’t think about this when I became a one-woman packing venture. On delivery day, I stepped boldly into Mahmoud’s, where the little fish were swimming in the tiled fishpond and the sun was white on the tables. I had squeezed oranges for breakfast and knew that to taste our oranges was to know transfiguration.
“They’re a little sour,” Mahmoud said, “but I like them that way.” He paid me $6 a box.
In the glass case behind him, below faded pictures of Lebanon and trays of baklava, sat the Sunkist oranges and lemons he’d bought the previous week. Bright orange, bright yellow, as in a picture. Perfect nipples on either side of each lemon. It looked like God had picked a few of his oranges and brought them to Mahmoud. No sooty crevices near the stem, no runts, no moon-shaped scars.
“We lost most of our fruit in the storm,” I told Mahmoud. “I’m afraid we’ll have to wait until next year to get another box together. And maybe they’ll be bigger next year,” I said, my eyes on the case where my oranges — poor, homemade things —would be exposed to diners next week.
“I hope so,” Mahmoud said and gave me a little cup of Arabic coffee on the house.
Toward the middle of February, when lilacs were dark blue in the hills, the grove began to blossom. Since then, the masses of white flowers — thick, waxy petals around a tiny daffodil head — have drugged the air like the poppy fields of Oz. The nectar is sweetest after dark, when cold air chills the flowers and the scent is like distilled gardenias.
In March and April, hummingbirds and bees sink into lemon petals, orange petals, pink India hawthorn, red Mr. Lincoln roses. Snails cling to the woodpile and rusting tin water buckets and press their white mouths to the rinds of rotten oranges. Billions of snails move in slow, solitary lines across the roads in spring, glossy and pitiful as they seek another grove, a lemon shoot, a fallen lime. Their trails look like glitter in dried Elmer’s glue, thin hyphenated paths curling across asphalt, plaster, brick, and wood, the pattern aimless, headed up the wall sometimes; and when you follow it you find a dead snail stuck to a windowpane.
But in the grove, every tree wears an oxidized copper band with upturned edges that keeps the horde of snails in a layered ring like barnacles. The copper gives them a shock that one grower compared to sticking your tongue on a radio battery. And to make sure they don’t outnumber us or the oranges, we scatter metaldehyde, which dries the snails until their shells are white and thin as the membrane of chicken eggs. The hollow, inanimate shells seem to have washed into the grove from some clean and glittering sea.
Now the blossoms are blowing off the trees at such a rate that the ground is flecked with petals, and it seems you might turn the grove upside down and watch them all drift down again. As the petals fall, the wet bulb of the stamen darkens into a green peppercorn, the stamen blackens like an umbilical cord, withers, and drops away. It takes longer to make an orange than it takes to make a human body: almost a year.
The jacarandas are in bloom the day we go see Karl Huggel’s grove. Karl Huggel is Swiss, a retired chef who used to cook for the Bel Air Country Club, and for six years he’s been raising Valencias and driving them to three Beverly Hills country clubs that sell juice by the glass. By 3:00 p.m. every picking day, he and a hired man have scrubbed the oranges with a little bit of Ivory Liquid in an outdoor sink, dried them with towels and sunlight, sized them, counted them, and packed them into cardboard boxes.
Karl’s grove is as clean as Switzerland. His 110 trees are marked with numbered cinder blocks, and they sit in smooth birdbath hollows, because Karl rakes the grove and takes spoiled oranges to the dump. His trees, like ours, were planted about 30 years ago, but his were properly spaced and have been pruned to picking height. They produce oranges as neatly dimpled as the painted icons on mid-century crate labels.
When we arrive, Karl tells us he intends to cut down 85 trees.
Fourteen years ago, he says, all his trees were producing big oranges. Today it’s more like 20 percent, and he’s plagued not only by increasing water rates, but by whiteflies. Pointing to the grove on the other side of the fence, Karl says, “The whiteflies don’t go over there. Their trees aren’t sweet enough — not enough water, not enough fertilizer. They come to my trees.” He lifts a clump of leaves to show us the black soot that clings to our leaves and fruit like coal dust on Victorian buildings. “That’s the whitefly,” Karl says; and when he flips the white, puffy deposit on a leaf, the lint specks in the air hover and flap away, and I realize for the first time that the whitefly is a literal name for an insect that looks like a bit of down.
While the whiteflies multiply, Karl says, sales decrease. “From last year on, the country clubs dropped.” Instead of delivering 20 cases a week, he delivered 15, then 10. It’s partly convenience, because the chef would rather not have 20 cases crowding the fridge. He’d rather buy two or three at a time, but Karl can’t drive to Beverly Hills and back every day; and though his oranges are fresher, people won’t pay more per glass.
Since Karl is selling to friends, he sells his cases below the market price published in the Los Angeles Times. The lower the market price falls, the less he makes on his oranges. We’re standing outside his tool shed now, and he holds up a cardboard citrus box. “See that?” he asks, pointing to the place of origin, which is Mexico. “That’s the first time I saw Mexico in the refrigerators. They’re bringing oranges from Mexico now.”
He leads us down a concrete path to an area where he has replaced a row of orange trees with liquidambars. Southern California’s autumn tree. The leaves flutter in the sun, green now, but gold and vermilion in October. “I’m going to have a forest here,” Karl says.
His wife, Jennifer, who grew up in ah Australian orange grove, takes me inside to show me the bags Karl and his gardener wear when they pick oranges. Commercial orange bags are made of heavy canvas and leather, but Jennifer quilts lighter bags for them out of unbleached calico, which soften and turn grayish-white in the wash. She makes new bags when the old ones wear out, but these will be the last. The orange trees are coming down at the rate of two a week.
“It’s good firewood,” Karl says, “the best.”
MAY 2, 1995
The Orange Heights Orange Association has a packing house in Corona. From the elevated Riverside freeway, you can see white stucco, the Sunkist sign, railroad tracks, oranges pouring like grain through a funnel and into a truck. Hundreds of wooden bins are stacked in the yard outside and in an open warehouse. A few leggy roses grow by the office where D.L. Gunter keeps track of the Riverside, Orange, and San Diego County citrus that is washed, waxed, graded, and boxed here.
Gunter grew up in Orange County, the grandson of a San Onofre fisherman. He’s been in the packing business since 1952, and although he’s tried to retire twice, he always winds up in the packing house again. He estimates that the Orange Heights packing house will process 600,000 pounds of Valencias this year, 300,000 pounds of navels, 50,000 pounds of grapefruit, and a few thousand pounds of Mineola tangelos. After this year, he has a hunch it will close.
“One of the biggest problems we have in this part of the country,” he says, “is that the growers aren’t farmers. They’re lawyers and doctors and retired people and all that kind of stuff. The farmers have gone to central California — the ones who are really, truly interested in farming citrus on a scale that makes money — because they can get land cheaper and water cheaper, and they have much more freedom to operate than they have in these areas.
“Our pest-control problems here are terrible because we have people. Wherever you have people, you have problems.” By this he means restrictions on pesticides.
“You’re always going to have some,” he says, meaning groves in towns like Fallbrook, “because you’ll always have people who have the money to build a house in the middle of ten acres, and they’ll be secluded, so they do it that way. But as a major commercial factor in the industry, this part of the country is really on its way out.” Only Pauma Valley, south of Fallbrook and north of Escondido, is likely to survive, he says.
Over the next few months, we will hear the name “Pauma Valley” spoken like the name “Jerusalem.” Every orange grower in Fallbrook or Rainbow longs for Pauma Valley, where the water is cheap, the houses are far apart, and the climate is peerless.
Of course, that’s what people used to say about Orange County. Gunter lived and worked there during the 1950s, when groves began to be taxed on the basis of “highest and best use.” The highest and best use was not, in those days, agricultural, and the farmers had to sell out or go broke. The Irvine Ranch Company, which Gunter estimates once farmed 100,000 acres of oranges, now farms 2000 acres. “And that’s not really profitable,” he says, “but they keep it for some unknown reason.”
More and more often, avocado and orange groves are let go — the water turned off, the trees sent into a sudden and final autumn. When orange trees die standing up, the branches turn yellow-brown, like scorched tumbleweeds. When someone is ready to build an office building or a subdivision, the limbs are sold for firewood and the stumps are dragged into piles and burned. Dead avocado groves are more picturesque, and they sit on dry hills in Fallbrook like graveyards, great, jagged limbs the color of driftwood, the branches bent like lightning bolts in a black-and-white horror film.
An acre foot of water, Gunter says, costs from $7 to $12 a year in Arizona. The same acre foot of water costs $400 in Valley Center, meaning growers there pay around SI500 an acre per year to grow citrus. “You can’t make any money like that,” he says. “It doesn’t pay that kind of money. We have an occasional year — if you’re in an area that has excellent production and your trees are good and so on.”
Though my husband and I are part of the pseudo-farmer contingent, Gunter has promised us a tour, and we follow him into the packing plant, where the cool air smells of machine oil, orange pulp, and wet concrete. The forklifts, conveyer belts, and sprayers shudder, slam, shriek, and rattle as the oranges flow under 50 or 60 pairs of hands on their winding, 200-yard path to refrigerated rooms. All the machinery is bright green, the color of wet citrus leaves. All the company posters are written in Spanish.
At the first stage, the oranges tumble through a fine spray of water toward four women who stand on a raised platform, two on either side of the trough. They throw rotted, crushed, or broken oranges into a metal bin that the packing house will ship to a hog farm at their own expense. “They used to come get it for free,” Gunter shouts over the noise, “but they know we’ve got to get rid of it.”
The women on the green platform wear aprons and yellow rubber gloves. The scent of smashed oranges is sweet and sickening, a smell that is neither the pure scent of juice nor the fermented smell of blue mold. Runts called “ponies” — which look disturbingly like our oranges at home — are sorted out at this stage and sent to the funnel at the top of the packing house. From there they will drop into open-air container trucks and be carried like a load in a child’s train set to the Sunkist juice plant in Ontario. The bigger oranges head for the next room, tumbling toward a brown bath that cleans and preserves oranges with chemicals that smell like yeast.
On the next platform, 16 women in aprons are grading the fruit. Grade 1 stays on the conveyer, while the second-rate oranges, which look the same to me, are tossed down a wooden chute marked “choice” and tumbled past another worker who knows which woman is working which chute. If he sees a mistake, he’ll tell her.
The women sorting these oranges for eight hours a day sit on stools and wear white knit gloves like the ones Eva Marie Saint removes in On the Waterfront. “It can make you sick,” Gunter says, shouting to make himself heard over the machinery, “if you’re not used to it” He points to his eyes to indicate, I suppose, a kind of motion sickness. Some of these women have been working at the plant for 20 or 30 years, he says, and they’ll retire on the company retirement plan.
Meanwhile, they isolate the first-grade oranges to be stamped with the Sunkist name. The best oranges flow into the stamping machine, where yet another woman stands to watch the stamped oranges fall out.
Second-grade oranges, Gunter says, are no different on the inside. “Cut ’em open and you can’t tell which one is which. They just have a few more scars on the outside.”
The oranges wind downhill and tumble into troughs where more women scoop them up and drop them into cardboard boxes. The boxes are then closed and glued by machine, and the count is stamped on the sides. A real professional like Gunter can tell by the pattern of oranges how many are in the box, but the count is there for everybody else.
Now the conveyer belt is carrying white boxes into a cold room, where they are stacked by count. The old grandiose crate labels are simplified now, stamped in newsprint orange on the side of the box: Homer, Princess, Villa, Pauma Valley’s Pala Brave. Eighty-five percent of these oranges are headed for the Orient.
The rooms are colder as we near the loading dock, because oranges have to be cold before they travel on the freeway.
On the last Friday in October, one final load of Valencia oranges will pass through these doors. Above this loading dock in the second week of November, a For Sale sign will be posted, and D.L. Gunter will list all the bright-green equipment in the Sunkist bulletin. He’ll stay on until December to pay the growers and finish up the paperwork, when the staff will dwindle to himself and the office manager. Some of the workers will drive to Riverside to keep their jobs; others will retire.
“You’re always sad about closing a place up,” he’ll say over the phone. “It says something about agriculture in this part of California, you know. It has to move where you have space, and we don’t have space here.”
In the grove, crows puncture the fallen oranges and fly away, their feathers oily blue and then mirror-white when they tip toward the sun. Gnats blacken the soggy fruit and rise up in a cloud when I pass. The upcoming crop is fattening into nubbins now, and even these tiny balls fall off the trees. Like the bigger oranges, the leathery balls turn light brown, then mahogany, then black, and they vary in size like nesting dolls, a peppercorn that would fit in a garbanzo bean that would fit in a macadamia and so on.
FATHER S DAY, JUNE 18,1995
The oranges are ripe. Now we can begin drinking orange juice and calling pickers, who will calculate whether it’s worth their while to pick an acre and a half.
The leaves are iridescent with grime, sooty black over tropical green. From a distance, the grime is invisible, as if the darkness were only shadows, but the whiteflies explode like down from a pillow every time I pull a cobwebbed branch. A bucket of oranges fresh from the tree looks like something that’s been sitting in a gas station for ten years, but when you cut them open, the pulp is a brilliant color, as orange as a wild California poppy.
According to entomologist Enrique Ferro, the nesting whitefly isn’t really a fly, and it came to San Diego about five years ago. Like the Mediterranean fruit fly, it probably traveled here in a package of fruit. “Most new pests arrive through the mail,” Enrique says.
Whiteflies cause sooty mold by sucking chlorophyll out of leaves and excreting sweet honeydew. “I’ve tasted it,” Enrique says, laughing. “It tastes pretty good.” The ants will kill for honeydew, attacking any insect that preys on the whitefly. The honey itself is colorless, but ants carry spores of sooty mold, and in hot, humid weather, the mold thrives.
When I ask if the earwigs in our grove are hunting whiteflies, Enrique says earwigs are not predators but scavengers, which means they eat what is left over. Most insect predators (with the exception of the ladybug, who eats her victims) grab their prey and suck out liquids, a technique demonstrated by Brad Pitt in the poodle scene of Interview with the Vampire. Earwigs, however, eat molted skins and the cuticles of larvae who have moved on to adulthood. “Earwigs are super,” Enrique says. “They clean.”
There are two ways to kill whiteflies, who can build five silky white nests per leaf until you have a population that rivals China’s. You can spray the trees with desulfinated petroleum oil, which makes the grove smell like new plastic, or you can bring in the larvae of lacewings.
Lacewings, Enrique says, belong to the order Ephemcridae, which means “short life.” Like people who eat barbecued spare ribs as well as tofu, lacewings feast on every subscale. The adults are beautiful, Enrique says, with four translucent, veined wings. But the larvae are “like little dragons with long mandibles.” Though they are one-fifth the size of an ant, they are very aggressive, and with their perforated mandibles they grab the ants and suck out what Enrique calls their “contents.”
“Sometimes I get scared,” Enrique says, “when I’m watching another insect through the lens and they come along. They’re horrible.”
Unfortunately, a really enormous whitefly population requires an enormous army of lacewing dragon larvae. It could cost, Enrique says, $1000 per acre, so it’s more economical to spray the oil if you find an average of three or four nests per leaf.
For the moment, we do neither. I grab oranges almost every morning and squeeze them with my own pair of mandibles, but I ration the juice: half a basket lasts all week, one cup per person per day.
For three days the fog has burned off earlier and earlier. It is summer in earnest now, hot and pale, with the distant hills no longer blue, but transparent lavender, like bits of sea glass. On Fridays, when sprinklers whirl over hard ground in the grove, the whole property lives on life-support systems: coiled black emitter hoses, lime-encrusted metal sprinklers, wet plastic nozzles that drip, bubble, and spray.
And yet we go shopping for young citrus at the Maddock Nursery, where the rusty smudge pots are gathered in clumps by the twisting dirt roads and tiny lemon seedlings are fed by emitters as thin as licorice whips. The hills of the nursery have been lopped off to make plateaus for the potted trees, and an ancient truck carries the workers up and down the roads in a beige plume of dust. A cloud like an ice floe has formed in the east, but the rest of the sky is a hot, metallic turquoise.
We’ve come to buy a few dwarf mandarins, kumquats, lemons, and limes from the Maddocks, who have raised citrus and avocados in Fallbrook since 1947. They farm 70 of200 acres on either side of Interstate 15, raising seedlings to sell to other nurseries, the occasional farmer, and people like us who want a short line of lemons by a fence, a pair of kumquat trees to arch over a path. Residential growth has produced a demand for what Linda Maddock calls “lollipop trees,” the round Fisher-Price specimens we passed on our way in. Linda works in the office, and her husband, Dave, works out in the sun, the fourth generation to live by citrus.
“We’ve cut back like you wouldn’t believe,” Linda says, writing down the price of the seedlings we want. “The cost of water is just...I don’t know how much longer we can stay in business.”
For the last ten years, they’ve shifted from selling fruit to selling trees, which is fine when, as happened this week, a farmer in Pauma Valley orders 750 Valencia trees. But water rates in Rainbow, where 95 percent of the water flows into fields, groves, and nursery pots, will double in the next ten years. Fallbrook is only 45 percent agricultural now, and its water rates will double by the year 2000.
There’s a sign on the side of the brown office building: Oaks For Sale, and the biggest tree on the property is a live oak, a dark, prickly tree in a hollow of dust. We settle our kumquat, lemon, mandarin, and lime trees in the back of the truck; but as we drive home past Fallbrook’s avocado groves and hot, paved driveways, it’s the oak tree we have on our minds, an oak storing up rain like a camel and outliving us all.
John Ritter has come to assess our fruit for Eco Farms, which operates one packing plant just north of the county line and another east overripe, and regreening oranges — everything goes, because the packing house will separate the ponies from the choice, the choice from the fancy. Warmer light falls in thin stripes on ladders that clang when the men reel them up and down. One of the men is a singer, but he sings only a line or two, then stops, then starts again, like an invisible bird.
Sometimes the thrashing of the trees is punctuated by spitting or the vibration of feet on metal rungs. Long, dewy strands of spider webs dry in the sun, and the afternoon is hot and sticky with the smell of smashed oranges.
The pickers are as skilled as men on trapezes or bareback horses, the ladders bouncing against their legs while they pull and toss oranges into the wide-open mouth of the canvas bag. Every picker leans to reach distant fruit, leaning and stretching until it seems the ladders will be kicked aside.
For two days they work like this, 6:30 to 3:30. By the end of the second day, they have picked 14 bins total, 2 bins each. They are paid by the bin, so in our grove the men earned only $20 a day, a situation John Ritter calls “a difficult pick.” Usually, he says, they pick two or three times that many oranges in a day, but because our trees are so tall and the fruit is so sparse, they lost time in setting up ladders.
“We’ll see how it packs out,” John says.
On October 18 we’ll receive an envelope from Eco Farms. We’ll open it, walking up the lane where the pickers stood in August, eating oranges they broke open with their hands. The pale orange check is for $234, enough to pay for water in the month of July.
The orange trees are covered with new green fruit. They fatten invisibly between the leaves, camouflaged because they have yet to become oranges. The other trees in the neighborhood are flamboyant this time of year: blood-red pomegranates, nippled lemons, waxy persimmons, navel oranges, all of them still flecked with cinders that floated down in a brush fire. The air smells of eucalyptus bark, and the mornings are foggy like mornings by the sea.
This morning the fog burned off early, and Lyle Pohl dropped off some sample bags of EZ Green chicken manure. We’re exploring organic farming, which means we’re considering a grove layered with chicken and steer manure. We’re a little dubious about the smell and the price, so we call Lyle.
“The first year or so,” Lyle admits, “it’s going to cost you more money, give you more headaches. You’re going to have to put up with a little bit of a smell, but if you want to just throw things on the trees, go back to chemical fertilizers.”
What Lyle sells is an organic fertilizer. At the main ranch in Riverside County, he has 900,000 chickens, and he does the composting on site, adding water, gypsum, enzymes, and bacteria. To show us just how pure chicken manure can become, he goes to the truck and gets a glass cookie jar full of dark-brown sediment as fine as coffee grounds. “Smell it,” he says, and we lean forward.
It smells like farm-in-a-bottle, rain on a plowed field. If Williams-Sonoma sold chicken manure, it would smell like this.
“I sent out samples to Scott’s fertilizer,” Lyle says, “and they said, ‘We’ve never seen a chicken like this before.’ ”
Unfortunately, this refined version will be too expensive to buy in bulk. Lyle says he’s developing this finer grain for Mercedes-driving women who want to tote home a bag and plant flowers. As for the type of fertilizer we’ll be buying in bulk twice a year, “You have to wash a while to get the smell off,” he says. “And do you have dogs?”
“Dogs love to roll in it.”
Before Lyle leaves, we ask our usual question: Do you think a little grove can still make it?
“If anybody walks out here and tells you you’re going to make so much money next year,” he says, “they’re just talking through the tops of their heads. They have no idea what the market’s going to be. The only thing you can do growing anywhere is put the money, the water, the fertilizer in it, and prune it and do what you have to do, and then you hope that there’s a market. It’s like going to Vegas. You’re throwing the dice. One guy said to me, ‘I want a crop that guarantees you money,’ and I said, ‘There’s only one crop I know, and that’s marijuana.’ ”
It’s a cloudy afternoon in Rainbow, and kids are walking home past a goat farm, a video store, and hills that look like boulders in a green fishnet. Rainbow is right on the north San Diego County line and across 1-15 from us, an even smaller, more rural town than Fallbrook.
On the main road, the Rainbow Valley Orchards organic packing house is covered in board-and-batten siding and paint the color of pink doll skin. It’s much smaller than the Orange Heights packing house, more like a roadside fruit stand than a commercial plant, so we feel immediately at home.
Inside, the walls of the little office are crisscrossed with telephone wires, clippings about organic produce and pesticide dangers, a green metal sign that says Farm Bureau Member. George Meza sits at the desk in a pair of half-glasses and a baseball cap, scribbling numbers on a pad while we tell him we’d like to convert 277 Valencia trees to organic farming.
George, it turns out, lives in Fallbrook on a hill so close to ours that we can see each other’s houses. He grew up in San Diego; his grandparents came here from Mexico, and his vowels have the sharp clip of Spanish. In 1990, after a career in grove management, he was working at Potter Junior High while he earned his bilingual credential. “They had me baby-sit unruly kids a lot,” he says. “It wasn’t a very tranquil situation.” When Rich Hart called him up and said he was starting an organic packing house, “I was here the next day.”
On the pad, George has written “277” and underlined it. He tells us to start with chicken manure. “Cover the chicken fertilizer with four inches of steer manure,” he says. “You won’t get the nutrients overnight, but over a period of time, you’ll get potassium, phosphorous, and nitrogen out of that. And as your steer manure breaks down, you’re feeding them microbials, and they break down existing nutrients in the soil and attract worms, and you start a real beautiful cycle there. You’ll see in about a year.”
Rainbow Valley Orchards has 190 registered organic growers in San Diego County, most of them in North County, and of those 190 people, George can only think of two who are full-time commercial farmers. I have no idea what a microbial is (my dictionary at home will say “germ”), but I’m ecstatic. I feel like I’ve had two cups of cappuccino and a chocolate croissant. Adrenaline is pumping through my armpits, and I feel this is the most beautiful office I have ever seen. I’m vowing to buy organic fruit for the rest of my life when we start talking about money.
George is initially optimistic. He says that if we were organic right now and our fruit were still on the trees, he could pay us S110 per bin, which means we would have earned $ 1500 this year instead of S234.
“We’re all assuming here,” George says, “that the fruit is halfway decent looking.”
Like college hopefuls with bad grades, we hand him the Eco Farms statement that shows 86 percent of our fruit as “choice” and 14 percent as “fancy.” People will buy fancy fruit. “Choice,” apparently, is a nice word for “pony” or “runt.”
“Whoa,” George says. “Eight-six percent. Whew. ” When he quoted us $110 per bin, he was assuming that only 20 percent of our oranges would be ponies.
But he’s still willing to take us on. Next year he’ll send in the papers that certify we’re using no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and we’ll be registered with the county. “All I ask is that you sell me your fruit for at least one year,” he says.
That settled, we talk about water. Water is the universal subject here, like the Apocalypse among evangelists.
“You wonder how far it’s going to go, the water cost,” he says. “I was with an old friend of mine, we were out in Valley Center walking around, and he goes, ‘Can you smell it? That smell of death? Can’t you smell all the trees drying up?’ and I go, ‘Well, I guess,’ but you look around you and all the large groves are drying up.
“People who are thinking about turning off the water, hopefully I get my hands on them first, and they give me a try, and it works out better for them. But who knows how high the water costs will go? Maybe it will get to the point where even organic won’t help. Because this is the tail end of the pipeline.”
On Fridays in the dry season, water hisses in the grove. The upper rows of sprinklers blacken dirt from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., the lower half from 2:00 p.m. until we go to bed. For those 15 hours the faucets in the house release a thin stream, no matter how far you turn the handle.
The Fallbrook Public Utility District, whose logo is a beaming Kewpie-drop in a whirlpool, sells this water to us. They buy it from the San Diego County Water Authority, which buys it from the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles, which finished the California aqueduct in 1913 and the Colorado River aqueduct in 1941.
“Water is free, but you have to pay to get it here,” says Joe Jackson, chief engineer of Fallbrook’s water district. He sits by a window in the office with me, community relations representative Michelle Burk-hard, and a big colored map of the “Lifeline of the Southwest” (squiggly blue rivers, straight green aqueducts, yellow and pink deserts). Tracing the aqueducts with his finger, Joe says Southern California has the most complex variety of water sources in the world, and that's how 16 million people can live in a desert.
“It’s an unnatural act,” he says, “but so far it’s worked.”
At one time, it worked for farmers. Joe says growers like Mr. Barr planted avocados and oranges in the '60s because of a Southern California water surplus.
“In 1956,” he says, “the Met water district had all this water, and there were only about 6 million people here. They were about to take on all this debt for the state water project, and they said, ‘Holy shit, we have more water than we can ever use.’ So they had a meeting in Laguna Beach, and they said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to encourage people to use water in our service area. We’re gonna annex anybody who wants in; if you plant it, we’ll bring the water to you, and it’ll be cheap because Lord knows we’ve got a lot of it.’ ”
Naturally, he says, people responded to that. “They looked around and said, ‘You know, if we had water we could make avocados....’ ”
If Mr. Barr installed our water meter in 1967, it cost him $160. Now that meter would cost $6638. Agricultural water rates have risen more slowly, from 11 cents to $1.30 per 1000 gallons since 1967, but they will double in the next five years. According to Joe and Michelle, urban users like biotech companies, housing developers, and manufacturers need a dependable, pure water supply, and they don’t care how much it costs. The county has thus invested, along with other water districts, in a $3 billion water project called the Domenigoni Valley Reservoir.
About 45 percent of the water in Fallbrook flows into groves, nurseries, and fields. In Rainbow 95 percent of the water is agricultural; in Valley Center, 85 percent. But when lumped with the rest of the county, these percentages have no significance at all. “The San Diego County Water Authority is a municipal, urban-water-user agency, and they don’t care if all the trees are gone,” Joe says. “It’s like you’re political partners with a 600-pound gorilla. You do whatever the gorilla wants.”
The price of water wouldn’t eliminate groves if all of California and Arizona paid the same rates; but farmers in the Central Valley, Arizona, and Imperial Valley pay $12 for a unit of water that costs Fallbrook farmers $600 now and will cost $1200 in five years.
“People come here thinking they can have this big, beautiful, rural lifestyle,” Michelle says, “but it’s costly.”
When she says this, I see myself on a talk show, my position identified with the subtitle “Wanted a rural lifestyle.”
Then I look at a printout of our water history. In 1995, a year when Fallbrook received twice the average annual rainfall, we used 720,000 gallons of water at a cost of $1400. This includes the tub, shower, washer, kitchen sink, flower pots, boxwood hedges, and orange grove. In 1993, when our house was still a blueprint and the hill was a crackling mass of rosemary and snails, the grove used 634,000 gallons all by itself.
It’s nearly four o’clock when I leave the water district. All over town the sun is shining. Avocados hang 40 feet above thick, brown, tropical leaves. Next year’s Valencias are pale yellow at the stems, beginning to ripen.
Once a year, on his birthday, I take Tom’s picture on the porch.
The first year, we put a chair in the dust where the porch would be, and he appears to be sitting in the high desert. Last year, the porch was still dirt, but the house was there, and the door salvaged from an Orange County grove was still raw from stripping and sanding. This year the porch is smooth concrete, the door is white, and the iron door knocker is in place.
The knocker was a present from a friend we visited in Valencia, Spain, where groves of oranges like ours still grow in long green rows outside the city. It’s a curious object, something Edward Gorey might draw: a woman’s ringed hand holds an orange, and when you lift her hand, she knocks the orange against a black iron star.
We’ll try the chicken fertilizer next year and drive out to Pete Verboom’s dairy for a $5 truckload of steer manure. We won’t poison the snails this year, or the ants, and if Enrique thinks we don’t have too many whiteflies, we’ll buy lacewing larvae for Christmas. We’ll stump every other tree until we have 130 naked trunks in the grove, all of them lit by sun at midday. The trees will blossom, the blossoms will swell to fruit, and if, as I fear, I someday hear the chain saw from every room in the house, at least I will have that iron orange, as round as the globed fruit in tapestries where unicorns stand beside women in pointed caps.